Can Micronesia Save ItsReefs By Fixing Its Ridges?

Rick Butler

Micronesia’s 2,100 islands and atolls are mere specs on the ocean upon which they depend, but activities on land are destroying the marine habitat that supports them. That’s prompted several environmental organizations to ask whether payments for ecosystem services can promote harmony among competing interests on land, sea, and stream.

Micronesia’s 2,100 islands and atolls are mere specs on the ocean upon which they depend, but activities on land are destroying the marine habitat that supports them. That’s prompted several environmental organizations to ask whether payments for ecosystem services can promote harmony among competing interests on land, sea, and stream.

29 November 2012 | People across the western Pacific archipelagos of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia have long enjoyed the sedating effects of a leafy plant called sakau. Beverages made from the root are said to keep people mellow without putting them to sleep, but the plant’s cultivation has taken a toll on the land.

“It’s not super-intensive farming, but sakau doesn’t hold the soil to the same degree as the undergrowth it replaces,” says Steven Victor, a region-wide planner for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). “From the air it looks like old growth forest, but it’s gone underneath.”

And where it’s gone is into streams and tributaries, in the form of sediment and excess fertilizer. From there, it seeped into mangrove forests and sea-grass beds before leeching out into the ocean and suffocating coral reefs.

Sick reefs mean fewer fish than just a few years ago, and that means smaller catches for local fishermen, who move further out to sea in search of prey. As fishing nets go empty, the islands have turned to tourism – which brings new roads and glittering new seaside hotels that add human waste to the mix and threaten to accelerate the degradation of the sea.

But the tourist trade also brings deep pockets that may contain the seeds of a solution.

The Micronesia Challenge

In 2006, the Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT) lauched its “Micronesia Challenge” – a call on governments, agencies, and NGOs across the region to protect at least 30% of Micronesia’s coastal areas and 20% of its forest by 2020.

In an effort to achieve that goal, organizers asked TNC to provide both project and financing expertise and enlisted the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF) to provide training for local authorities in setting economic parameters for conservation and measuring their results. Also on board is Rare Conservation, which creates the grassroots campaigns that are being deployed by local authorities to raise awareness and change behaviors.

The consortium has been examining the interacting economies and ecosystems of these islands to see if payments for watershed services (PES) could be used to build support for watershed and marine protection.

Such programs generally funnel money from users and polluters to conservation efforts, but this one has a serious flaw: namely, the farmers who are causing much of the damage are also the fishermen who suffer the most from it.

Who Will Pay – and Why?

Umiich Sengebau says the solution to Micronesia’s problem lies in education, which he hopes the tourism sector will find it worth investing in. After all, tourists are also looking for pristine waters and lovely coral reefs.

“There’s a need to raise awareness that what happens on a property can increase soil erosion,” says Sengebau, who is TNC’s deputy director for conservation and is based in Palau. “It’s about teaching techniques they can use in conjunction with the sorts of farming they are doing that can limit soil erosion.”

One group that might be willing to pay is Exhibit and Travel Group (ETG), a private entity headquartered in Chengdu, China. The company wants to build up to 10 hotels with a combined 4,000 guest rooms and 10,000 jobs on the island of Yap by the year 2015.

But the development might also contribute to sedimentation, and the government of Yap has yet to sign off. MCT and its partners are toying with the idea of proposing surcharges on utility bills and annual fees for sediment mitigation.

MCT and its partners have also looked outward, to commercial fishing fleets, and are investigating the possibility of placing surcharges on the fishing rights that governments and protectorates sell to commercial fleets.

None of the ideas have moved beyond the drawing board.

“Adding a few cents to the water bill doesn’t produce a good chunk of money,” says MCT director William Kostka. “And introducing the size of fees that would [produce a sizeable pool] might create a situation where people are over-taxed.”

As a result, MCT and the local partners it supports are drawing on expertise from a coterie of agencies active in the region. Their work is occurring in realms as diverse as funding-source sustainability, land-use planning in areas not embraced by the Micronesia Challenge conservation drive, delineation of ownership rights, and setting data parameters for measurement of the effects both of sedimentation from upland runoff and of efforts to mitigate it.

“We certainly don’t want to give up the idea [of PES],” says Kostka. “But we have to be careful not to push forward with something that does more harm than good.”

Building a Program

“Our goal is to identify what it takes to create programs that can be sustainably financed and then to get funding for those initiatives, including sedimentation prevention,” says Trina Leberer, TNC’s Guam-based Micronesia program director. “Monitoring is a big role, in terms of providing tools and expertise in measuring the overarching trends in general and effectiveness of management in particular.”

Given the multifaceted nature of both the agencies and the region’s logistics and cultural demands, work to devise solutions to reef sedimentation is progressing on several fronts. They include creating an endowment to supplement funds devoted annually to conservation by national governments and from the US, via it protectorates: Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Government sources and private donors continue to seed various endowment sub-accounts, which stand at around $10.5 million.

However, Leberer estimates that an endowment of around six times that size is necessary to generate the interest income to fully support local projects. And adds that $20 million is required annually if authorities across the five jurisdictions that comprise the region are to meet their conservation targets.

Hence, the near-term goal is to develop and implement models and programs that enfranchise locals in planning and decision-making when it comes to watershed management. By doing so, participants say, they will effect the sorts of behavior changes that are critical to long-term success.

At project level, TNC is working to create watershed alliances that shift responsibility for management from national boards and bodies to local residents. The group has helped to underwrite an information exchange that is aimed at implementing models used elsewhere in the Pacific and in Latin America.

Representatives from the California-based CSF, which in March conducted two weeks of course work aimed at providing the sort of referential framework in terms of definitions and base concepts that is necessary to collectivizing the efforts of a broad range of stakeholders. They see linking payments to future developments as one means of making conservation programs sustainable.

Education Works

Through the training program, CSF hopes to use its record of success to push for PES.

“The commitment and awareness of the importance of these activities to their communities is evident,” Kim Bonine, CSF’s training director, says of those she taught during the classes in March. “They may have had little previous exposure to economics, but this provides an opportunity for them to use these new skills and approaches to have a big impact in support of conservation, particularly in this region, where there are fewer actors involved.”

And US-based Rare Conservation is working within the framework of the Micronesia Challenge to support efforts by local groups to forge solutions that are best suited to the constraints of small populations and shallow pools of funds for conservation. At present, Rare is working at 11 sites, four of them land-focused, to promote the awareness of just how in activity in the watershed affects marine protected areas.

“The goal is to give the alliances tangible activity that they can get behind,” says Matt Lutkenhouse, a regional director at Rare Conservation in Arlington. “Sedimentation also is a problem with the marine protected areas that have been created in places like the Philippines. So, development of a PES-type solution is something that could be applied there, as well.”

The results from feasibility studies at several sites are expected at the turn of the year, as is a master plan from ETG that government officials in Yap have requested prior to voting on the hotel project’s approval. In addition to the empanelling of watershed alliances and Rare Conservation’s campaigns within the Micronesia Challenge , they will provide what the MCT hopes is a framework for establishing the PES-type compensation arrangements that make planned conservation sustainable.

Different Islands, Different Drivers

The challenge is daunting, in part because every island is different. In Palau, for example, a US-sponsored road built to ring Babeldaob significantly degraded marine habitats. And the effect of opening new areas of the island to development since the 50-mile circuit was completed in 2006 means the run-off from construction and agriculture poses a continued threat.

Meanwhile, Pohnpei has lost70% loss of its native forests over the last three decades thanks to growth in both population and in the popularity of sakau. Along with sedimentary run-off, the area’s coastal waters have declined in quality thanks to organic and untreated human and animal waste.

“There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done,” says TNC’s Victor. “Here in Palau, there’s a hydro-electric utility. And there’s a feasibility study underway looking at whether there’s a fee tolerance for upland protection among the locals. But that’s a first step in seeing whether conventional PES systems might work in the region.”

Tapping Existing Funds

Funding for the activities to-date have come from a variety of sources, including national government contributions to endowments for the Micronesia Challenge, matching funds from NGOs like TNC, donations from foundations like the Global Environment Facility, and from businesses and private citizens.

TNC’s Leberer says as much as $58m is necessary to produce the kind of returns from interest and investment that would supplement other recurrent sources and make funding sustainable for marine and upland protection and management. That’s where PES comes in.

“We need to be creative in helping our local partners find additional sources of funding to fully capitalize the endowment,” she says, noting avenues such as applying a tourist tax in places like Guam, which draws 1.3 million visitors a year, also are being explored. “There are not big pots of money here, so we need to cobble together grants and donations in addition to what the governments provide on an annual basis and make it work that way.”

Please see our Reprint Guidelines for details on republishing our articles.